Did you watch the coronation of King Charles III yesterday? What did you make of it? Personally, I thought it was an impressive spectacle. We do ceremony and pageantry well, here in the United Kingdom. It was at times moving. There were those little individual moments set against the pomp and circumstance, a son kissing his father, a grandson getting a little bored and yawning, his big sister holding his hand to look after him. Even the sight of former prime ministers meeting, when Tony and Cherie Blair met John Major, there was a little moment of tenderness, Norma Major had been unable to attend due to ill health and the cameras caught Cherie Blair showing concern and care, a reminder that these former political rivals are human too.
There were things that frustrated. When we were told that it was the first time there had been Gospel Music at a coronation, I’m not sure that was quite true, the Gospel Choir had sung beautifully but the piece although new fitted with traditional choral styles rather than Gospel. I’d have loved to see them living things up a bit with something from their own genre and it would have sent a better message, that people are welcome from all backgrounds without having to conform to establishment norms.
Despite some reports, this was not a multi-faith event, people from other religions were welcomed and participated in the ceremony but it was very much an Anglican service. There were good things about that, the hymns, liturgy and readings were Scripture soaked and there were gospel themes in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s short sermon too. Of course, the other side of the coin was the way that ceremony blurred the message, through archaic language both in terms of wording and structure.
There was one thing that made me sit up and pay attention though. I wonder if you missed it. I hope not because it should have pricked our ears and raised our concern. In the sermon, Justin Welby said this:
And the weight of the task given today, Your Majesties, is only bearable by the Spirit of God, who gives us the strength to give our lives to others. With the anointing of the Holy Spirit, the King is given freely what no ruler can ever attain through will, or politics, or war, or tyranny: the Holy Spirit draws us to love in action.The full script is available here https://johnager.co.uk/2023/05/06/coronation-sermon-justin-welby/
There’s significant truth in there. The Holy Spirit does draw us to love in action and we can only face the tasks God has given us of living in his world for his glory with the Holy Spirit. That much is true. Certainly, it is our prayer that the King will, if he does not yet, come to know Jesus as his saviour and so receive the Holy Spirit. We cannot read human hearts but many believed that this had happened with his mother.
However, there is a problem here. The suggestion, to those looking in was that Christians believed something very different about the Holy Spirit to what the Bible teaches. The suggestion was that somehow, Charles III had been specially anointed with the Holy Spirit. In fact, if I’ve understood it right, the implication is that the anointing with oil had done this. That, the objective, external events of the day actually did something internally to the King.
Now, we would love there to be a connection between outer symbols and inner heart events but it is worth saying two things. First, that the direction of travel will be the other way, the symbol should externally reflect and show what is happening spiritually in the heart. The outer symbol does not confer something in a magical way on the recipient whether that’s communion, baptism or anointing with oil. Indeed, the fact that Charles was already King and already carrying out his role prior to his coronation should remind us of that.
Does this matter much? Well, maybe not, maybe it’s just seen as a bit of ceremony and no-one takes the words too seriously. However, wouldn’t we rather that people were able to take the words of as Christian leader and pastor seriously when he is given the opportunity to speak to so many. Further, sadly this confusion of outer ceremony with inner reality is something far too prevalent. To may people, Christian faith is about the rituals and what you do.
This has even creeped into Reformed Evangelicalism, most overtly through Federal Vision thinking and especially within paedobaptist contexts. Too often I’ve heard people saying that communion and baptism objectively do something regardless of the mind/heart of the recipient.
Additionally, the event and explanation by attempting to model a modern coronation in London on an ancient coronation in Israel misses something of the vital New Covenant dynamic. The Holy Spirit doesn’t merely show up in special ceremonies for special people to enable them to do special tasks. The Holy Spirit came at Pentecost and fills the life of every believer. Indeed, he comes not just to make the task a little more bearable, he comes to give us life itself.
This is important because in the end the sermon petered out. The Gospel images became more about motivation and example to assist us in living a life of service, all good pious, civic stuff but not the Gospel itself.
I understand that the Archbishop had to fight hard to get his four minute sermon in yesterday and I’m hoping that the miscommunication I’ve described above comes down to an attempt to compress complex thoughts into such a short space.
So it was perhaps courageous of Welby to push hard for a sermon slot but to be honest, I think he would have done better not to. Better to say nothing than to say something unhelpful.